Is the Tooth Fairy Like God?

Soren is a six-year-old boy who didn’t believe in the Tooth Fairy (“What would a fairy do with all those teeth anyway?” he asked). But once he discovered there was an exchange of money for his baby teeth, he bought into the fiction completely.

Here, we have a story that is obviously irrational, but once an incentive is thrown in, the boy buys into the story entirely.

Is this a metaphor for religion?

Children are able to sacrifice rationality and embrace myths as long as the trade-off is worth it. Humans seem to be born with this simple economic tendency. People are willing to sacrifice rationality and believe all sorts of myths if the act of believing can guarantee them friends, club activities, moral-teaching mechanisms, existential peace-of-mind, a girl-friend, political-legitimacy, respect-in-the-town and the like. Religions which make the trade-off of rationality worth it to the believer survive.

(via Triangulations)

  • http://yrif.org Joel

    It must be the season for tooth-fairy-related posts:

    http://yrif.org/2009/05/19/the-difference-between-jesus-and-the-easter-bunny/

  • John

    I can’t deny that I once went to a Christian music festival for a girl when I was a teen.

  • dfledermaus

    Children are able to sacrifice rationality and embrace myths as long as the trade-off is worth it.

    Just children?

  • kittycat

    One more reason why atheist organizations should be able to replace the churches. All the benefits of community without the irrational belief system.

  • Reckless

    I honestly had an easier time believing in the tooth fairy as a kid than I did in God – the tooth fairy left tangible evidence!

  • Devysciple

    In a way, that is certainly how religious indoctrination works. But on the other hand, if every human being worked this way, there would be no atheists/agnostics. There would be millions of Pascal’s-Wager-ists out there, since it is hard to trump eternal hapiness as an incentive. Then again, we would probably try to believe in all the gods mankind has created in its history…

  • J. J. Ramsey

    People are willing to sacrifice rationality and believe all sorts of myths if the act of believing can guarantee them friends, club activities, moral-teaching mechanisms, existential peace-of-mind, a girl-friend, political-legitimacy, respect-in-the-town and the like.

    Errm, not so sure that one can claim that religion in general guarantees any of those things, not even peace of mind. There is also the problem here of modeling religion as a belief system that people choose to buy into, which is sometimes true for certain missionary religions, but not in general.

    I suggest taking the advice of Scott Atran: get real, that is, get some data and don’t rely on your intuition. If you want to find a good metaphor for religion, start by, say, reading Pascal Boyer so that you can get an idea of what it is to which you are trying to fit a metaphor.

  • Cindy

    Heck, I had to tell my son the tooth fairy WASN’T real when he was 6 because he was so scared of the thought of some stranger coming into his room while he was sleeping!

  • Soulless

    The Tooth Fairy and God are very much alike also in that in both cases people do all the work but the fictional character gets all the credit.

  • http://atheistgravy.blogspot.com revatheist

    I have a six-year-old and had to recently explain to her about the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, etc. We had never told her that they were or were not real but we had played the game, apparently too well. When I found out that she thought these things were real I felt responsible and decided to undo the damage as gently as possible. She was of course rather upset, but had an interesting take: she asked if we could still pretend they were real. She liked the presents and everything and wanted to keep playing the game. I said that pretending is fine and can be quite fun as long as we remember that it is just pretend and not real.

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverFrog

    Nah, the Tooth Fairy gives you money. God takes it away so that his preachers can buy swimming pools and stretch limos.

  • http://thesciencepundit.blogspot.com/ The Science Pundit

    Children are able to sacrifice rationality and embrace myths as long as the trade-off is worth it.

    This is a very ironic use of language when you consider that acting in one’s own enlightened self interest is considered by many to be the very definition of rational behavior.

  • Richard Wade

    So, if we could study the religions which offer the least in the trade-off for rationality, and if we could quantify those benefit packages into a dollar amount, we could find the average price of people’s rationality.

    It seems to vary greatly from person to person, but I’d guess the average will fall around $16.43 over a person’s lifetime.

    If anyone is interested, my rationality is for sale for only $4,457,893,444,602,399,101,686,349,223,568,000,231,884,393,278,199,473,459,401.27
    Cash only, no checks, no refunds.

  • http://atheistgravy.blogspot.com revatheist

    pundit,
    Your point was part of what I was trying to say in my post: my daughter was upset not only by the hard truth but by the thought of no longer getting rewards; however, she perked right up after she thought of the plan to still get the reward without sacrificing her rationality. (Although now that I really look at her solution, I think the little bugger is going to end up as a politician.)

  • Newman

    Soren,
    I tend to agree with your basic premise, however to make it more like religion you would have to say; If you believe in the “Tooth Fairy” you will get rewards (money), but if you don’t believe in the “Tooth Fairy” all your teeth will fall out.

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com Sabio

    Wow, I am very happy my post got picked up.
    Indeed, Hermant, it is a metaphor for religion. But as in many of my other posts, I emphasize that all humans sacrifice rationality at times (Atheists being no exception). But when religions make the sacrifice and then cloak the sacrifice in sanctification, we can rightfully protest more loudly.

  • Shel

    Are they actually “buying into the story”, or playing along to get the rewards? I always knew my parents were the ones leaving me money, but I went along with the charade anyway, because hey, free money! Of course, they didn’t put any special effort into trying to make me believe. I think as I got older it got to a point where I would just show my mom that I had lost a tooth and she’d hand me 50 cents, or whatever the going rate for teeth was at the time.


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